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Realtor associate Maria Luisa Artze, a close friend of Marta, is poking around the house, thinking about what she will say to the people who come to look. An energetic woman in her late forties, Artze's short curly brown hair is accented by matching silver-and-amber earrings and necklace. She doesn't confine her appraisal to the house. "Martica, you are getting too thin," she clucks disapprovingly at her diet-Arizona-tea-drinking friend. "You need to eat more." Artze has been offering Perez advice since the day they met, during Perez's 1996 campaign for the Westchester area community council. Both showed up at the Spanish-language radio station La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670), Artze to make an on-air pitch for a tax cap amendment, Marta to promote her candidacy. "She walked in there and said, “Oh, I'm so nervous. I don't know what to say.'" Artze remembers. "I said, “Don't worry. Be yourself. Tell them who you are and what you want to do.'"
In 1996 Marta Perez was a former schoolteacher who worked with her husband at his lucrative software company. She had just earned a doctorate in education from the University of Miami. Her dissertation chronicled the experiences of 200 of the children who arrived in a mass exodus of rafts from Cuba in 1995 and were absorbed into the Felix Varela educational centers. That work, and her involvement in an effort to erect a Varela statue, helped open doors for her on Cuban radio. Perez says the timing was right for her to jump into politics on the newly formed community councils, a zoning-to-the-people brainchild of ex-County Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. "I was concerned about traffic, growth, crime," she explains. "Still am. I had no political experience whatsoever, but I had friends who were working for Alex Penelas's campaign. They told me what to do, and I read a lot of books. I was surprised to win. The other candidates had Republican backing and experience." Perez beat out a crowded field of nine.
Although Perez was new to politics, so were most of her colleagues. At age 45 she was something of the grand dame on a seven-member council filled with twentysomething men and one 67-year-old man. They made her chair of the council. Paul Angelo, the current chair of the Westchester council, says Perez set the tone for professionalism. "She laid down the groundwork," the 32-year-old computer company owner recalls. "She always put genuine feeling into her speech to explain why she voted against something. There was never any hint of being mean or vindictive. She was just there to do the job."
To Perez jumping from a neighborhood zoning board to the school board in 1998 seemed a natural progression. She had a Ph.D. in education and had been an elementary school teacher from 1974 to 1980 but left full-time teaching after the birth of her son. "Then when the kids were in school, I helped my husband in business," she says. She became the first community council member to successfully make the jump to higher political office. Others have since followed, including the newest school board member, Jacqueline Pepper. Ironically Perez had to run against the younger brother of the man who had created her community council job. Renier Diaz de la Portilla, then 27 years old, had been elected two years earlier on the strength of his powerhouse last name. He, like many other political insiders, underestimated Perez.
They shouldn't have, says political consultant Alberto Lorenzo. Since 1993 Lorenzo has been a consultant to the election campaigns of an eclectic stable of politicians, including Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, city Commissioner Johnny Winton, and state Rep. Gus Barreiro. In 1998 he took on the campaign of Marta Perez. "She ran into a lot of obstacles because she was running against an incumbent," he recalls. "She had a hard time at first getting people to take her seriously. It was hard to raise money and get doors open." Lorenzo decided Perez's best chance was a back-to-basics ground war. "Nothing is more effective than door to door," he observes. "Marta is a very hard worker. She was very determined."
Artze describes her friend as full of incredible energy. "She looks fragile, but she's not.... I remember when she was running for the school board," recalls Artze. "I said, “How can you go to 90,000 houses?' She started at five o'clock to ten o'clock every day. I would try to tempt her, invite her to dinner, but she would say, “I have to go and knock on doors.'" Shoe leather did the trick. Perez pulled an upset: 52 to 48 percent.
Artze believes Perez's tireless work ethic and uncompromising demands for reform are both her greatest strengths and, possibly, her Achilles' heel. "I'm afraid because she's only one person against a whole system and it's so," she pauses, momentarily at a loss for words. "They can destroy you if they don't like what you're doing. The school board doesn't function like other governments. There's no checks and balances. So there's nepotism, the salaries are so high, and the waste."
Outside the system's inner track, from the perspective of the parents, teachers, and others who flood her office with messages of support, Marta Perez is a hero. Maria Lage, a parent who is more than a bit scrappy herself, turned to Perez for help last year when she had problems with her son's baseball coach at Southwest High. She claims her complaints to school administrators downtown were ignored because top officials had close ties to coaches and the principal. "I tried every level," she says. "I was told Southwest was untouchable. The coach there used to brag that they were protected from very high up." Lage says she contacted Perez after seeing her on TV news denouncing a land deal that critics charged had cost the district millions more than it should have. "After what I experienced, I figured she must have a lot of courage," Lage reasons. "She found herself making a lot of enemies in the way of helping us at Southwest, but she never backed down." Lage was one of the parents who tipped authorities off that several coaches were being paid to teach phantom after-hours classes to athletes who never attended. Five coaches later were charged with felony grand theft and official misconduct, and the principal was transferred from the school.